Leave it to Banksy to open a hotel in the least accommodating spot in the world. The subversive British street artist has once again slipped in and out of the Holy Land undetected, leaving behind his latest installation, The Walled Off Hotel – a fully functioning ‘art hotel’ in Bethlehem, where guests come face-to-face with the Israeli separation wall, which cuts the Palestinian city off from Jerusalem.
Curious locals and eager tourists made their way to the opening of The Walled Off last Saturday, greeted by a doorman in a top hat and a chimpanzee bellhop spilling luggage down the front steps. Dwarfed by the eight-metre high concrete wall only a few feet away, hotel manager Wissam Salsa threw open the front doors and welcomed the small crowd inside.
In typical Banksy fashion, the entire hotel is a surreal, darkly comic commentary on not only the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but also the UK’s role in its tumultuous history. ‘It’s exactly one hundred years since Britain took control of Palestine and started rearranging the furniture – with chaotic results,’ Banksy said in a statement, referring to the 1917 Balfour Declaration, which cemented British support for a Jewish homeland in Palestine. ‘I don’t know why but it felt like a good time to reflect on what happens when the United Kingdom makes a huge political decision without fully comprehending the consequences.’
The hotel is styled as a British colonial outpost, and guests can enjoy a high tea service in the smoke-filled, mahogany-panelled bar, decorated with vintage china, velvet and leather sofas and tropical ferns. The niceties, however, are offset by the original Banksy artworks on display: a row of paint-spattered surveillance cameras line the back wall, cherubs with air masks float above the player piano, a classical bust is encircled by a permanent cloud of tear gas.
Just off the bar is a museum, which tells the history of the conflict and the wall in painstaking detail. Lord Balfour guards the entrance, and springs to life at the touch of a button to ‘historically re-enact’ the signing. Inside, displays include everything from Palestinian ID cards to Israeli Defense Force T-shirts to give visitors a sense of life on both sides of the wall, and everything is ‘almost fully fact-checked’ – though eagle-eyed visitors will surely question the authenticity of a Palestinian keffiyeh scarf supposedly donated by President Mahmoud Abbas.
The hotel hopes to attract more tourists to the Palestinian city, where the hospitality industry has suffered in recent years due to the conflict. ‘Banksy tourism’ has actually been a part of Bethlehem since the artist visited in 2005 and 2007, when he created some of his best-known stencil work, including a young girl frisking an Israeli soldier and a peace dove outfitted in a bulletproof vest.
Similar politically-minded artworks decorate the hotel’s nine rooms, and each faces the wall, giving guests ‘the worst view in the world’. Rates start at $30 per night for military style barracks, and $215–$965 for luxury suites. Some locals have criticised the hotel for fetishising the wall and life under Israeli occupation, but while Banksy funded the project and designed the space, the hotel operation itself is fully Palestinian.
‘This is a local project, and this is a normal hotel,’ Salsa tells me, noting that The Walled Off plans to stay open for the entire centenary year. ‘We have almost 50 employees so far, and everyone that works here is a local.’
The Walled Off is committed to local artwork as well. Upstairs, a white-walled gallery features a permanent exhibition of Palestinian artists, curated by historian Dr Housni Alkhateeb Shehada. ‘Reviewing Oneself & the Art of Living’ showcases the work of eight Palestinian artists, including renowned painters Suleiman Mansour and Samar Ghattas, and a side gallery will feature rotating solo exhibitions of contemporary Palestinian artists.
Bethlehem native George al Ama, an art collector and cultural researcher, is especially pleased Banksy made this artistic statement in his city. ‘I like the project, the location and the timing,’ al Ama tells me just after the opening. ‘I believe that the whole project is the strongest art statement in Palestine at the moment!’